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Good Reads  Environmental & Social Studies  Economics, Politics & Policy  Science & Technology  Biotechnology & the Environment

The Wizard and the Prophet Science and the Future of Our Planet

By: Charles C Mann(Author)
618 pages, b/w photos, b/w illustrations
Publisher: Picador
Deeply researched, The Wizard and the Prophet portrays the intellectual legacy of two environmental pioneers that influences you more than you know.
The Wizard and the Prophet
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  • The Wizard and the Prophet ISBN: 9781509884186 Paperback Jan 2019 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 5 days
  • The Wizard and the Prophet ISBN: 9781509884162 Hardback Jun 2018 Out of Print #236555
Selected version: £14.99
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About this book

The Wizard and the Prophet tackles the biggest question we humans are facing: can the earth sustain our growing population? Our very existence is reliant on finding an answer to this one big question.

In forty years, the population of the Earth will reach ten billion. Can our world support so many people? What kind of world will it be? In this unique, original and important book, Charles C. Mann illuminates the four great challenges we face – food, water, energy, climate change – through an exploration of the crucial work and wide-ranging influence of two little-known twentieth-century scientists, Norman Borlaug and William Vogt.

Vogt (the proverbial Prophet) was the intellectual forefather of the environmental movement, and believed that in our using more than the planet has to give, our prosperity will bring us to ruin. Borlaug's research in the 1950s led to the development of modern high-yield crops that have saved millions from starvation. The proverbial Wizard of Mann's title, he believed that science will continue to rise to the challenges we face.

Mann tells the stories of these scientists and their crucial influence on today's debates as his story ranges from Mexico to India, across continents and oceans and from the past and the present to the future. Brilliantly original in concept, wryly observant and deeply researched, The Wizard and the Prophet is essential reading for readers of Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens or Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel, for anyone interested in how we got here and in the future of our species.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Deeply researched biography of two pioneers
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 17 Jul 2018 Written for Hardback

    If I asked you to propose solutions to some of the world’s problems and future challenges, things such as overpopulation, food production, hunger, soil erosion, resource depletion, energy production etc., what ideas would you put forth? Most likely, your proposals would build on the intellectual legacy of two men you have never heard of. Allow American journalist and writer Charles C. Mann to introduce you to ecologist William Vogt, father of the environmental movement, and Nobel-Peace-Prize-winning plant breeder Norman Borlaug, instigator of the agricultural Green Revolution.

    Mann has written a big, chunky book that is a biography of these two men. By scouring archives of correspondence and written material left by both men, and through interviews with people who knew them, he gives a detailed and deeply researched picture of their lives and careers, and how these came to shape the way they think.

    Both men saw the same problems facing the world in the 1930s and 40s, but championed opposite solutions. William Vogt, the titular prophet, saw doom and gloom in our future if we didn’t rapidly curb consumption and population growth. His 1948 book The Road to Survival laid the blueprint for the familiar brand of apocalyptic environmentalism that was later espoused by Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb and the Club of Rome’s The Limits to Growth (Limits to Growth: The 30-year Update is a relevant sequel to that work), and he is the godfather of the idea of sustainable development. Norman Borlaug, the titular wizard, meanwhile saw opportunities and was a fierce believer in the power of science and technology to make a difference. His work to improve wheat varieties through systematic cross-breeding and careful use of agronomic techniques launched the green revolution that greatly increased global wheat harvests and staved off famine. Though both men are no longer alive, their legacy lives on, and their disciples still argue amongst each other, perhaps more bitterly than ever.

    Next to a dual biography, Mann also spends a significant part of The Wizard and the Prophet looking at four great environmental challenges, asking how Vogtians and Borlaugians have dealt with them, or propose to do so. There is food, where the two views clash in organic agriculture vs. biotechnology such as GMOs. There is freshwater, where low-tech solutions such as reducing water consumption, recycling rainwater, and drip irrigation are pitched against high-tech solutions such as large-scale desalination plants, dams, and pipelines. There is energy, where renewables such as solar and wind energy face off against nuclear and fossil fuels (though interestingly, there is also a conflict between small, distributed forms of solar and wind power versus large centralised wind and solar farms). And then there is climate change, where Vogtians champion renewables to stabilise carbon dioxyde levels, and the planting of forests to reduce it, while Borlaugians champion high-tech solutions to combat it, such as carbon capture and storage (CCS) and geoengineering (see Morton’s The Planet Remade for a readable introduction).

    So, Vogtian or Borlaugian, prophet or wizard, which are you? The answer is likely to be a bit of both. As Mann also points out, these two men represent ends of a continuous scale. Personally, for example, I am skeptical of some of the claims put forth by the organic agriculture movement and am an unabashed cheerleader of genetic modification. I intend to read Conventional and Organic Farming to back myself up with more data, Tomorrow’s Table is queued for review and promises a rapprochement of sorts, while my review of Seeds of Science pretty much sums up my views on that topic. But where climate change is concerned, geoengineering sounds like a bridge too far to me.

    But I feel we are missing part of the picture here. And so does Mann. What of the mother-of-all-problems: overpopulation? Vogt had outspoken views on fertility reduction and birth control but Borlaug remained mute on the topic if I am to believe Mann. There is a third school of thought, a more misanthropic and nihilistic view that is common amongst biologists and that I strongly sympathise with. Mann speaks to that charming rebel Lynn Margulis, who plainly says that humans are destined to wipe themselves out, as all successful species must, Vogtian or Borlaugian fixes notwithstanding. Until we learn to control our population numbers, she likens us to bacteria in a petri-dish, our biology urging us to procreate until we have used up all available resources.

    The idea of the world being one of finite resources seems utterly logical to me. Forget peak oil, how about peak everything? I have found Bardi’s Extracted and Abraham’s The Elements of Power enlightening in that respect. Here Mann disappoints me, the only point in the book where he does, as he struggles to understand this. It is easy to comprehend Dennis Meadow’s exasperation on page 405 at Mann’s suggestion that rich nations could somehow buy their way out of such problems. Similarly, his assertions on page 404 that population growth in developed countries has not always been accompanied by eco-catastrophe completely overlooks the central thesis that Bowyer made in The Irresponsible Pursuit of Paradise: namely that we have merely shifted the burden of resource extraction to developing countries.

    With The Wizard and the Prophet, Mann has really gone to town, combining a deeply-researched biography of two influential figures with how their intellectual legacy is being applied today. The book sprawls richly, occasionally meandering into obscure details, but never losing sight of the driving narrative. Mann has unearthed some remarkable period photographs to illustrate the book with, although a timeline is unfortunately lacking.

    Can we yield the best of both Vogt and Borlaug’s thinking, while controlling and ultimately reducing our population numbers? If you came here looking for salvation, this is not the book for you. Mann has purposefully not made this book a blueprint for tomorrow. If, however, you want to understand how and why today's discussions around environmental problems and the future of humanity are shaped the way they are, this book is a must-read.
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Charles C. Mann, a correspondent for The Atlantic, Science, and Wired, has also written for Fortune, The New York Times, Smithsonian, Technology Review, Vanity Fair, The Washington Post, as well as the TV network HBO and the series Law & Order. A three-time National Magazine Award finalist, he is the recipient of writing awards from the American Bar Association, the American Institute of Physics, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and the Lannan Foundation.

By: Charles C Mann(Author)
618 pages, b/w photos, b/w illustrations
Publisher: Picador
Deeply researched, The Wizard and the Prophet portrays the intellectual legacy of two environmental pioneers that influences you more than you know.
Media reviews

"A fascinating story of two forgotten men whose ideas changed our understanding of humanity's place in nature [...] Mann offers a sympathetic, nuanced way to understand one of the fundamental debates of our time: How will 10 billion humans live sustainably on Earth, when our demands for energy and food are growing?"
– Annalee Newitz, editor, Ars Technica

"This unique, encompassing, clarifying, engrossing, inquisitive, and caring work of multifaceted research, synthesis and analysis humanizes the challenges and contradictions of modern environmentalism and and our struggle towards a viable future."
Booklist starred review

"Masterful [...] Mann's most spectacular accomplishment is to take no sides [...] An insightful, highly significant account that makes no predictions but lays out the critical environmental problems already us."
Kirkus starred review

"Does the earth's finite carrying capacity mean economic growth has to stop? That momentous question is the subject of Charles Mann's brilliant book The Wizard and the Prophet [...] A treasure house of knowledge [...] Indispensable."
Wall Street Journal

"Mann's storytelling skills are unmatched – the sprightly tempo with which this book unfolds, each question answered as it comes to mind, makes for pure pleasure reading [...] The great virtue of Mann's book [...] is that raises very large questions [...] that are usually either ignored or answered in slogans. [Mann] provides detail enough, and simplicity enough, that anyone who is struggling with these puzzles will be enlightened and informed. And entertained, which, given the subject matter, is no small feat."
New York Times

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